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AVENGERS CAN DECIDE DESTINY AVENGERS 54, LAS VEGAS 51.

Byline: Rich Hammond Staff Writer

The Avengers didn't clinch a playoff spot Saturday night, but they made things a lot easier on themselves.

With seven teams in contention for three playoff berths heading into their penultimate regular-season game, the Avengers needed a little breathing room. They provided it for themselves with a 54-51 victory over Las Vegas in front of 14,588 at Staples Center.

The Avengers will clinch at least the eighth, and final, playoff spot if they beat Orlando next Sunday and can still make it even if they lose to the Predators. A loss to the Gladiators on Saturday would have complicated matters immensely, but quarterback Tony Graziani and an efficient offense came through.

They also could clinch a spot with losses by Tampa Bay, New York, Indiana and Austin today. Saturday's loss eliminated the Gladiators from playoff contention.

``That's good,'' Graziani said. ``We knocked them out, and now that's one less thing we have to worry about.''

Graziani has had two of his three lowest passing totals in the last two games, but they have both been victories. Against Las Vegas, Graziani completed 17 of 24 attempts for 229 yards and six touchdowns.

The Avengers led by 10 points for most of the second half after taking a 27-17 lead early in the third quarter on Graziani's 10-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ingram. Las Vegas cut the deficit to three points by scoring with 17 seconds remaining in the game, but Chris Jackson recovered an onside kick.

Graziani scored the touchdown that ended up being the game-winner as he pushed the ball in from one yard out with 28 seconds left to give the Avengers a 54-44 lead.

The first half didn't match expectations, considering the Avengers and Gladiators came into the game with two of the highest-scoring offenses in the league. The Avengers led 20-17 at halftime.

Both teams played it safe for most of the half and limited their offenses to short- and medium-range passes. Neither defense made a stop in the first quarter, which Las Vegas led 10-7, and then the Avengers missed a great chance to take control of the game midway through the second quarter.

One of Graziani's rare deep pass attempts, on the first play of the second quarter, connected with Jackson for a 32-yard touchdown to give the Avengers a 14-10 lead.

Las Vegas slowly drove down the field on its ensuing drive, but on the sixth play, from the Avengers' 8, quarterback Clint Dolezel lofted a pass near the goal line toward Lenny Ware, but Avengers linebacker Greg Hopkins easily got the interception.

Rich Hammond, (818) 713-3611

rich.hammond(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Las Vegas' Dennison Robinson loses his helmet as he is stopped by Kevin Ingram, top, and Damen Wheeler.

Edna T. Simpson/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 23, 2004
Words:471
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